One of my goals for the summer is to get this blog up and running regularly, so I thought I’d make a post about the hot topic of the moment in my circles: Sailor Moon! I am capable of writing thousands of words about Sailor Moon at the drop of a magical moon brooch, so it’s perfect.
Everyone and their magic talking alien cat is caught up in Sailor Moon nostalgia right now thanks to:
the long-awaited release of the new series, Sailor Moon Crystal, in July and
the completely out-of-left-field announcement last week that Viz had acquired the American distribution rights to the original series and would be rereleasing all 200 episodes including Sailor Stars subbed and dubbed.
A lot of people more articulate than me have written about The Hobbit and The Hobbit movie and Tolkien and all that, but I told myself I wouldn’t count it as finishing a book unless I wrote something about it. So here we go. Today I finished rereading The Hobbit.
Lord of the Rings is a story about extraordinary people battling for the destiny of the world and the one seemingly ordinary hobbit who ends up outshining them all. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is about a bunch of ridiculous dwarves on a quest for GOLD and VENGEANCE and the seemingly ordinary hobbit who turns out to be just as good at adventuring as the next guy, especially when the next guy is a ridiculous dwarf and the adventures require an ability to talk clever and hide like a champion. (Bilbo as a hero gets me on a deep, deep level.)
I decided to reread the book because the movie was, in my opinion, terrible and I was curious about what the book would seem like after all this time. I haven’t read it since I was ten or eleven. I know a lot of fans liked the movie, for the world and the fannish glee of seeing it on screen and in some cases, even for the movie plot itself. I found the movie to be a structural disaster as a standalone film and, as an adaptation, strangely bereft of all the charm I’d imbued the story with in my head. I was glad to reread and find that that charm really was there and, now as an adult, I can tell a little bit better how that charm works in the story.
(The people are the best part of the movie.)
I don’t want to harp on the movie adaptation, but I can see where they had difficulty adapting it. In the book, things happen easily. There’s danger but there isn’t the potentially plot-halting conflict that action movies seem to require. There are deus ex machina moments but they don’t seem like cop outs so much as a way to keep the plot moving smoothly along from interesting place to interesting place.
One shift the movie made (more of a neutral shift than a bad one) illustrates this: in the movie, Bilbo decides not to go on the adventure and then changes his mind the next morning when he sees the contract from Thorin and has to chase after the dwarves because they’re leaving. In the book, however, Bilbo decided to go that night and we see that clearly laid out in his mind – the Took side wins, hurrah. But he’s still a Baggins, so he oversleeps and then hangs around the house as though he’d dreamed the whole adventure proposition until Gandalf points out the note they left him and how he only has fifteen minutes to meet them! The movie version sets up a clear conflict – will he go or won’t he go? – even though we know he’s going to go, come on, of course he’s going. The book version, however, already dealt with that question quickly and the rest of the section is more of a humorous moment and expanding on Bilbo’s character, showing how even though he has decided to go, taking that first step, he’s still going to have a lot to get used to about the adventuring life.
There are a few ways to explain how and why things that happen in The Hobbit seem to happen so easily. Part of it is because it’s a children’s story meant for telling out loud – it’s a legend or a fairy tale, where adventures can happen for no reason at all. Gandalf can pull a hobbit into a random adventure with no explanation besides “I think it would be good for you.” Eagles come to help just because they hate goblins and elves and dwarves can decide to work together because, well, they hate goblins too, goblins are totally the worst. No additional characterization needed! That is just how this world works!
(All about location!)
Another part of it is because, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are what Orson Scott Card here describes as “milieu stories”. The primary focus of the storyteller in a milieu story is not on what’s happening or who’s doing it, but instead on the world that it’s happening in. Tolkien’s novels set in Middle-earth are about Middle-earth – its creation, its languages, its morality, its mythology – more than they are about the plot or the characters. (They’re vehicles for his linguistic experiments, of course.) The hobbits are ordinary (very English) people being used as a window for the reader to view an extraordinary world (while also advancing the key Tolkienian insight that the most seemingly ordinary people can be the most extraordinary if they choose.) The plot’s lack of conflict isn’t a problem when the storyteller and the audience both are more invested in the Official Tour of Middle-earth. This is why there’s so much wandering around in both books and why there are so many divergences that don’t advance the plot. And, perhaps, why there’s so much telling of events rather than showing – it’s a device to suggest an expansive world outside what the heroes are directly experiencing.
On reread, all the parts of the book that were most memorable to me as a child remained the most entertaining scenes. They’re also all scenes where cleverness and bravery (and Bilbo’s ridiculous luck) triumphs over sticky situations and the three scenes I’m thinking of seems to work as an arc on their own. The first is the trolls, of course. Gandalf defeats them by imitating their voices, causing them to argue until dawn. Though Bilbo was very brave in this scene, it was all Gandalf, but in the context of Bilbo’s later maturation, it’s a demostration of Gandalf’s and eventually Bilbo’s preferred method of dealing with trouble: talking yourself out of it if you possibly can. Talk until a way out presents itself. Talk until you have a better idea.
(Always wanted to be a riddle master after this scene.)
The next scene I’m thinking of is, of course, Riddles in the Dark. Bilbo is left as alone as he can be with very little hope of escape except for a murderous little cave beast, so, of course, he decides to… play riddles with him? It’s a very hobbit-like decision (indeed, Gollum turns out to be a sort of hobbit and that’s why he’s so very into riddles.) Bilbo tricks Gollum with accidental cleverness (“what’s in my pocket?” indeed) and lucks out in the typical Baggins fashion, but he kept his wits and made good choices. He didn’t have much control over this situation, but he played it well.
Finally, there’s Bilbo’s conversations with Smaug. Ultimately, these only matter plotwise because Bilbo mentions his bare patch in front of the thrush and because they cause Smaug to leave to the mountain. Smaug tricks him a bit but Bilbo plays Smaug and plays Smaug well with very little knowledge of how to speak to dragons, as the narrator points out. This section shows very clearly that Bilbo has gained a new self confidence (sometimes leading him to ridiculous mistakes) and a new amount of agency in his own adventure. Sure, he doesn’t want to go see Smaug, but he does a
nd he takes the lead on the investigation of the mountain over the dwarves throughout that section. (This new self-confidence feeds into his attempt to prevent battle, by “betraying” Thorin to Bard with the Arkenstone, which is a very complex choice to analyze.)
(I saw this version as a young child and the illustrations scared me off The Hobbit for 4-5 years.)
So! The Hobbit is a fun children’s story about an interesting world with a complex background that we get in pieces and songs. It’s also about a very specific type of heroism. In fact, it’s about the most real type of heroism. It’s the heroism of having a perfectly nice comfort zone that you don’t have to leave but you decide to shove yourself out of it just to see what it’s like living a story instead of reading one. It’s the heroism of being small and agile and clever and a burglar (and, ultimately, a damn good one and proud of it.) And, finally, it’s the heroism of coming back to home, to normal life with a new appreciation and no regrets.
To me in my current life, it reads like the story of a person who discovers that he’s just as good as all those people he thought were out in the world doing incredible, untouchable things. It reminds me a lot of what I’ve been feeling recently, as I realize that I’m no longer a little kid looking out at all the amazing people doing amazing things in the world – I am now and have every right to be one of those amazing people. I just have to make the choice (and not oversleep when the time comes.)
I had further thoughts on the complexities of morality in Tolkien, but I think that’s probably enough for a whole separate post (and maybe should wait until I’ve reread Lord of the Rings, if I actually do that.)
Yesterday, I went to a Kabuki Dance Workshop and Kabuki Dance Performance at Japan Society. Here’s a write-up of what it was like. Disclaimer: I know most of you who know me think I’m some sort of all around expert on all things Japanese, but I actually do not know that much about kabuki. I mostly know Nô (nooooo). Consider all of this the wonderings and reflections of an informed amateur. I would love some input from people who are more experienced with styles of Japanese dance and performance that aren’t Nô,
First I went to the workshop with the performers. It was two hours long with 24 participants. Honestly, I could have gone for another two hours. It’s been a long time since I’ve been bossed around about keeping my feet together by a bunch of Japanese people who do not hesitate to move my body parts where they want them. I missed it! I also understood about 90% of the Japanese, which is great considering how out of practice I am, though I think it owes more to the teachers’ easy-to-understand speech style.
This was, however, very different from my days in Nô instruction. First of all, the group was obviously a mix of mostly amateurs, some Japanese speakers, i.e. it was not a bunch of intense Japanese college students who take their performances very seriously even if they don’t understand any of the words they’re chanting (and who immediately go back to reading One Piece and Kuroshitsuji after practice, Doshisha Nôgakubu Kanzekai, I love you all.) Shout out to the small child who is apparently really into Kabuki who kept asking adorable questions; she graduated the workshop with a degree in adorableness, for sure. The main teacher, Bando Kotoji, was the lead dancer for this performance (the star, if you will) and he was hilarious. He obviously had acting in his soul – every moment would be another mime or gesture. The assistant teachers were other dancers from the group and they were all also quite suteki (“handsome”, “cool”), haha, the men and the women both (but I think all Japanese dancers are pretty suteki, sorry.)
Second difference was that this was, ahem, kabuki. I quickly discovered that I was fine with the movements but not so much the personality – I never had to express iroke (sensuality) in Nô! Don’t get me wrong, Nô certainly expresses character and it’s important to know what you’re embodying as you dance, but we never focused on the personality of each movement. And, obviously, I never had to cross my eyes to perform Nô, ugh. But it’s the same problem I’ve always had in acting and in life – lack of ability to show emotions – which has lead to me being cast as narrators etc in the handful of plays I did in junior high and high school (I have no fear of public speaking, a good memory, and a strong speaking voice, but no facial expressions. Basically born to be the voice of God.)
So we learned a bunch of cool steps, we acted like ladies, we acted like ruffians (araigoto), we played with the costumes that turned out to be for the Yoshino-yama performance, and I sat seiza like a pro. Overall, I was left with a desire to run off to Japan and train in Nô and then become the lady Donald Keene of the next generation.
I would say the most important lesson I took away from this was one I already knew, though I always applied it specifically to Nô. This is the centrality of transformation and movement to the performance. Bando-sensei kept coming back to the idea that, with a turn, with a slap on the knees, one could become a different character, and with a twist in your footwork and a single line, you can move across the entire world. This is an essential aspect of Nô performance, where there is often limited scenery and the characters, almost ritualistically, recite their names and location at each new introduction. You announce, “I am a monk who is traveling. I started in Kyoto” – a step – “and traveled and then I arrived” – a turn around the stage – “in New York.” Magical! At the end, the adorable child’s mother asked if there was a particular psychological shifting technique to this, one she could use to shift gears in life, essentially, and Bando-sensei said to do the movements (slap the knees, pivot) and see how it helps.
Then I went upstairs to the gallery to check out the Deco Japan exhibition. It was flawless, you all should go, though small like most Japan society exhibitions. The posters, packages, and paintings are particularly striking to me, but the kimono designs and the household objects are also really important to the collection and to the evolution of Japanese design consciousness.
I sat through the pre-performance lecture, which was good but kind of all over the place. The speaker, a dancer and teacher, gave a history of kabuki dance and shamisen and focused on the importance of music to the performance. She also talked about the concept of MA (???) as a gap in time or space, a pause, which she connected to AKUMA ??????, a demon that could mess up your performance, but also to MARYOKU ??????, the magic that imbues the performance with meaning.
Finally, the performance itself. It was strange to see all these people who had just been right next to me, teaching me some hot dance moves, up on stage in full costume and make-up. The effect was striking.
Sanbasô: a dance adapted from Okina. Okina, if you’re not familiar with it, is a Nô / proto-Nô “play”, though it’s really more like a celebratory dance / song than it is a story. It’s kind of the “number zero” of the Nô repertoire and it’s mostly known for being really different from all other Nô plays. Traditionally, it would open a full day of Nô. This adapted dance was no different! Bando danced in a hat with a rising sun and a dark festival coat with an elaborate crane embroidered on the shoulders and sleeves (you couldn’t tell what it was most of the time, but at one point, he stretched his arms with his back towards us.) There was a flesh-tone layer underneath his top layer, suggesting that the character is actually mostly naked. He rang bells and came out into the audience to ring them over our heads. It was great, everyone was amused, and obviously from the perspective of ritual aspects of performance, this is a highly important “opening act” to bring blessings on the whole performance.
Cho no michiyuki: A standard plot: two lovers from warring families, the woman dies and the man kills himself to follow her in death. They become butterflies and troll around together. Then, they reach the afterlife, only to get pulled into hell for the sins of their families. When I read the synopsis, my first thought was, “Wow, most Japanese plot ever?” But now that I know a little bit more about opera, it’s obvious that this sort of melodrama is universal. The dancing in this case was beautiful and broken up with interludes of glowing butterflies brought on to the stage by the assistants. There’s an odd middle section where they costume change and dance for the New Year and/or Buddha’s birthday, but then it really picks up when they’re dragged into hell (true of most plays involving people getting dragged to hell.)
One major aspect of kabuki (and most Japanese theatre, as stated above) is the emphasis on transformation. In this case, they’ve already transformed into butterflies (the assistants with their glowing butterflies continually bring us back to this) but the depiction of their butterfly life shifts. First, they appear in costume as all white spirit butterflies, then they dress in colorful spring outfits as they celebrate on their journey. The tone of the performance shifts again as they cross the river into the afterlife and fight not to fall into hell and finally, they come out in white costumes with silvery designs suggesting the shape of butterfly wings as their bodies are consumed in the flames. I guess what I mean to point out is that the performance, costumes, set, lighting, and the music all come together to move them from spirit-humans to spirit-butterflies and vice versa.
Tamatori Ama: This was the most Nô-like dance, adapted from the play Ama. So of course, I thought it was great and the teenagers behind me thought it was dull and needed more movement (ugh high school students who are really into Japanese culture, I’m so ashamed I was once one of you.) Anyway! The story is about a pearl diver who bears the son of a nobleman who had disguised himself as a commoner because he had lost his sacred jewel to the sea dragons nearby. When the pearl diver finds out this is why her lover came to town, she says she’ll get it back as long as he promises to make her son his heir. So she dives and grabs it from the dragons and they give chase. When it looks like all hope is lost, she stabs herself in the belly and tucks the jewel inside the wound. The dragons, you see, will not approach the dead. With her dying strength, she tugs the safety line and the other villagers pull her up, jewel intact.
Obviously I think there’s a lot to say about this and it was beautifully depicted here. Our ama in this story effects the only true bodily transformation open to a human: she transforms herself from alive to dead. In doing this, she invokes taboos against contact with the dead, which were almost as strong in her society as they are in the sea dragon society, for her own purposes and thereby transcends the limitations put in place by the taboo. Her reward for this is the breakdown of another strict societal limitation – her son, born a commoner, will become a noble lord. But a human – as opposed to a fox or another “trickster” figure – cannot transgress these boundaries between life/death, land/sea, human/dragon, commoner/lord freely and so she sacrifices herself so that these boundaries can be broken down temporarily, allowing her lover to get his jewel and her son to become a lord.
Yoshino-yama: The big show of this performance is a dance section from Yoshitsune Senbonzakura (Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees). I personally think Yoshitsune Senbonzakura is amazing, I might like it better than Chuushingura but don’t quote me on that. This section is where Shizuka-gozen is traveling around, trying to get to Yoshitsune, and Tadanobu, Yoshitsune’s retainer, appears to accompany her. Of course, he’s not really Tadanobu, he’s actually a fox who is attracted by the sound of Shizuka’s drum which is made from the hide of his mother. Anyway, they pal around, reminisce about Yoshitsune’s adventures, and just in general have a good time up on Yoshino.
This one was definitely the closest to the Kabuki I’ve seen before; it was a lot more like a scene from a longer production than the others. The cool part about this performance is how the fox retainer is depicted. All of his movements are standard warrior movements (like we learned in the workshop!) but his gestures are made more fox-life – he folds his hands like paws, he tiptoes somewhat lightly. Anyway, it’s adorable and the whole thing is awesome. Shizuka-gozen is always a favorite with me for some reason.
Overall, another fabulous performance series from Japan Society. As usual, on my Japan Society survey, I wrote, “DO MORE OF THEM” for suggestions for how to improve their performance schedule. I also told them to get a bunraku performance and a Takarazuka-style revue performance (but their stage is literally not big enough for a single Takarazuka costume, let alone a whole revue, haha.)
One comment I wish I had mentioned on my survey is that their subtitles are terrible. The texts associated with these dances are all somewhat baffling, but they make sense because they’re poetic. I guess they wanted translations that were minimal so they wouldn’t distract the audience from the dancing, but their translations seemed to fail tests of literalness and beauty both. (I mean, I don’t know the texts so maybe not, but I like to think I have a decent ear for the variety of Classical Japanese known as Ridiculous Chanting Play Language at this point.)
Coming out of an interview, I do the typical replay-what-just-happened-mentally-so-I-can-freak-out-about-it deal. What could I have said better, given more time to think? Inevitably, the first mental redo involves me cussing up a storm. “What made you study Japanese,” the interviewer says, and I’m like “Man, NO FUCKING CLUE, should have studied Chinese, FUCK JAPANESE, seriously.” In my mind, this version of the interview goes a lot better; the interviewer sees that I’m a girl of the people, willing to get my mouth dirty with the most versatile words in the English language. My boldness wins me a job! Swear words triumph over political correctness!
2. I don’t know how to dress.
OMG, my mother was so right. Dressing for success when you’re a women is hard. Men have it easier: you pay a bunch of money, you get a nice suit. I think it’s easier for women to get nice clothes cheaper, but there’s too much choice, too much freedom. Dizzying. Plus, interview clothes are different from clothes-you-wear-to-work clothes; you have to go conservative with interview clothes and a lot of nice women’s clothes have prints and colors I would consider too loud for an interview. At a group interview for a tutoring company (a job I got!), one woman was in a formal dress (cocktail length, but cocktail length you could wear to prom), someone else was in jeans. I muddled through with a skirt / blouse / jacket combo, but that was literally every piece of clothing in my wardrobe that didn’t come from H&M.
3. I do too much research.
Really, this is my own failure at asking questions. People always tell you to ask questions in interviews, when all I want to know is how much money I’m going to make, please hire me, please. I’ve already researched your company, so why do I need to ask questions about it? The answer to that is obvious – you have to ask questions to prove you’ve done the research, duh, hello, what is this, amateur hour? This is an important skill for undergraduates as well; you probably all know that, in any given class, half the people who ask questions are idiots who lack basic reading comprehension while the other half are show-offs asking time-wasting questions to prove their understanding of the material. (Or at least, that’s how it is in liberal arts, maybe things are different over there in science~ world.) You must master the trick of asking questions you already know the answer to in a way that shows you already know the answer while still making it a question.
4. Going to a good school helped.
I have less to prove to interviewers just because I can put Columbia on my resume. I don’t know how this works out statistically or scientifically, but anecdotally, let me tell you that, during most of the interviews I’ve had, the potential employer will say something along the lines of “SO COLUMBIA, EH? PRETTY GOOD SCHOOL, EH?” I feel like it gives me a tiny gap of wiggle room in how articulate I have to be. Readers who only know my stunningly witty and carefully constructed prose might be surprised to know that I sometimes say “um” and tend to babble; I feel like, having gone to Columbia, I get maybe five extra “um” credits or something. So thanks for paying for that, parents! I could have gone to Fordham for free and have an extra $200,000 right now, but my resume looks good!
5. I’m really only suited for academia
It’s a sad, hard truth. When I put on a suit jacket, I feel naked if it doesn’t have elbow patches. I want to soliloquize about the delicate beauty of Noh and the linguistic implications of having three writing systems, one of which is meaning-based, to interviewers who just want to hear if how long it takes me to translate fifteen pages. All I want to do is go back to school. TAKE ME BACK, COLUMBIA. I’ll go to GS, I’ll go anywhere!
You graduate from college in New York. You go insane. You decide to press pause on graduate school and throw yourself full throttle into the wild world of the Manhattan job and real estate markets. If you’re lucky (I know I’m lucky, very lucky), you have a grandmother who lives in North Jersey, on a convenient bus route to Port Authority, and everyone decides you should crash there while looking for a place and a job. It’s better than if your parents lived in North Jersey, because then they’d insist you live with them forever and cleverly sabotage your attempts to get a place in Manhattan with your friends. But no one expects you to live with your grandma forever, just for a month, maybe, or until she finally gives up her big old house for a smaller one or until one of the recently-born great-grandchildren grows up and needs a guest room at Grandma’s.
You move in haphazardly – your suitcases are scattered around New York, at friends’ apartments you were crashing at, delaying the inevitable. (One had an empty room for sublet, but it was in a basement and no cell service and they’re a bunch of dirty hipsters.) God, taking suitcases on NJ Transit buses is a pain and the people who ride NJT out of Manhattan in the middle of the day on weekdays are crazy. A father and (adult) daughter who speak in abruptly final sentences, call each other “sweetie”, and are way too into Harry Potter – they went to see that HP exhibit in Midtown, obviously – keep trying to talk to you while you’re in the middle of a 20-page description of a freaking doorway in The Name of the Rose. They offer you a ride somewhere when you get off the bus at the same Park & Ride but, no, you see your grandma’s handicapped plates (ankle problems) and you hop in.
The house is full of pictures. You have an entire shelf in the cabinet devoted to a shrine to your face. Here is you when you were tiny and your hair was three times the size of your head. Here is you with Tigger. Here is your Aunt Diane, who passed away before you were born. Here is your Communion photo, here is your dad’s Communion photo, here is your grandfather’s Communion photo. Here is your grandmother’s wedding photo, here is your aunt’s wedding photo, here is your cousin’s wedding photo. You wonder if your grandma will ever have a picture from your wedding to put up.
The refrigerator is full of faces of relatives you don’t know who sent your grandma cards with pictures on them. Sending cards with pictures on them is a big thing that families do, you gather, and you wonder if you’ll ever do something so domestic. Now that you think about it, your mother does it too, after she got remarried, though those pictures were never as elaborately organized as some of these North Jersey Italian Christmas card photos seem. Your grandmother explains to you who sent every picture and how they’re related, but how the heck can anyone follow that? Someone needs to publish a family tree cheat sheet you can carry around so you can follow Grandma’s conversations.
You begin, gradually, to get drawn into Old People Events. Are you going to be in the city tomorrow night? Grandma asks, and if not, will you go out with her and her friends to dinner? You hesitate, no, no plans, but you don’t want to intrude, and obviously that’s the wrong answer because now you are definitely going out to dinner with them. Your dad texts you saying you’re a saint. You remind yourself that this is only temporary, that you’re lucky to have a grandma so close, lucky to have a chance to spend time with her, and that old people can be unexpectedly interesting.
You find yourself accidentally wondering completely inappropriate things – did Grandma and Grandpa have a good sex life when he was still alive? Has she ever had sex with anyone besides him? Does she have a secret kinky side? – and then feeling horrified at yourself, trying to stop thinking, only thinking about it more, and now OH MY GOD, I’M THINKING ABOUT IT AGAIN, MAKE IT STOP. You think, maybe when you’re old and having wild kinky sex all the time, you’ll remember your younger self’s horror at the possibility of Grandma-sex and laugh.
The local news is always on. (How is it always on? Is 24-hour local news a thing?) Your grandma always falls asleep watching it. A teenager is always in a coma after being hit by a drunk driver. The stock market is always down. There are always new findings about negative health effects of things you use every day. The house is always clean, she does the toilets every day. Kids are always too busy to spend time with their parents. Your dad never tells your grandma anything about his job or his life, she says, and you think that’s too bad, but what do you ever tell your dad? You miss your grandpa; when he was alive, baseball was always on.
You’ve finished all your real books and now you’re kindle-ing whatever books you can, Project Gutenberg books, books on BDSM, the entire Dune series. You’re not a student anymore, you can read whatever you like and never be held accountable for it. But you’re not a student anymore, so reading now might be a waste of time better spent sending in job applications. You think about applying for MFA Writing programs but you feel too inadequate. You think about how all great writers probably had to live with grandmas at some point, but you realize that most not-great-writers probably had to too.
You have a meeting with a landlord on Friday and you don’t want to consider the possibility that this apartment will fall through. Your dad’s agreed to cosign and you remind yourself again that you’re lucky, lucky, lucky. You quit whining into your new-fangled typing machine, pull on your pants and your smile, and go entertain your lonely old grandma.